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Asia-Pacific , Ground

World's Biggest Guns; North Korea’s Massive Koksan Howitzers and the Evolution of the Country’s Strike Capabilities

June 15th - 2018

The Korean demilitarised zone has long been a position where some of the world's largest artillery forces have faced one another in preparation for a potential war, with the North and South Korean armed forces fielding the second and fourth largest towed artillery forces in the world. North Korea also deploys the largest rocket artillery force in the world, with its souther neighbour tailing behind at 17th. The close proximity of strategic and tactical targets in the two countries, from Seoul on the southern side to Kaesong in the north, makes artillery a highly viable capability, one which both countries have invested heavily in alongside short range tactical ballistic missiles such as the North Korean Hwasong-11 and South Korean Hyunmoo-2C.

South Korea’s armed forces as of 1999 have fielded what is widely considered the most capable self propelled artillery system in the world, at least until Russia’s 2S35 Koalitsiya-SV howitzer enters full service, and the Samsung K9 Thunder far surpasses Western made platforms such as the U.S. Paladin across the board in its capabilities. While the K9 retains an overall capability advantage, the largest piece fielded by North Korea’s ground forces have long held a record for the longest ranged artillery piece in service - one which is also set to be broken by the new Russian howitzer after over thirty years. The Koksan artillery is estimated to have entered service in 1978, and is the only known 170mm artillery piece in service anywhere the world. The weapon’s 38 mile firing range allows it to comfortably target Seoul from across the demilitarised zone, making it a key part of the country’s deterrent force long before nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles were developed. Facing off against a vast arsenal of American tactical nuclear weapons deployed to South Korea, first stationed there in 1958 following the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from article 13 (d) of the armistice which ended the Korean War, the Koksan was at the time of its induction North Korea’s most effective means of striking back against its nuclear armed adversaries. While what the weapon provided was far from even basic parity, it was a first step towards indigenously developing longer ranged strike capabilities to place enemy assets under fire beyond the country's borders.

The Koksan was based on the chassis of the Chinese Type 59/ Soviet Type 54 battle tank, with the former being a licence produced variant of the latter making them difficult to differentiate. The reliable and widely used design, of which approximately 1,800 are in service in the North Korean ground forces 2,400 in neighbouring China, made the lower half of the Koksan relatively easy to service and maintain. Unlike the South Korean K9 and Russian Koalitsiya, the Koksan uses an open mount which gives it a distinctive appearance. Since first entering service, the Koksan has undergone numerous modernisations and enhancements which have improved its efficiency, its ammunition carriage and its range. Older variants of the Koksan were sold to Iran in significant numbers during the Iran-Iraq War, part of massive arms transfers made by North Korea to its Middle Eastern defence partner which included everything from small arms to ballistic missiles, and these artillery units reportedly proved an invaluable asset in Iranian hands - with some pieces being captured and displayed by the Iraqi armed forces. It was based on examples of the original Koksan which were later captured from Iraq by the United States military that evaluations of its combat performance have been made, and the weapons system is estimated to have a 38 mile firing range on this basis. Newer and more advanced variants of the weapons system developed since the 1970s are likely to have a significantly extended range over the original weapons platform - though the exactly details all remain unknown to all but the Korean operators themselves.

The Koksan is thought to have influenced Project Babylon, a weapons program by Ba’athist Iraq personally commissioned by President Saddam Hussein to build massive artillery pieces capable of matching or outperforming the Koksan deployed by Iran. Considering the usefulness of the Koksan in Iranian hands, which had a number of purposes including targeting Iraqi ground forces with a high degree of accuracy at extreme ranges and harassing Kuwaiti oil field, Iraq hoped to developed a similar weapons system of its own. With the Iraqi military industrial base relatively limited, and development of ballistic missiles or other sophisticated strike capabilities well beyond its capabilities, attempting to build a simple but large artillery piece to contend with the Koksan remained an effective prestige project for Iraq. The project begun in 1988, shortly after Iraq’s capture of the first Koksan pieces, though it was terminated following the country’s defeat in the Gulf War in 1991.

The Koksan remains in service in large numbers in North Korea and Iran today, and is one of the East Asian state’s most prolific early defence projects which marked the beginnings of the development of a highly capable military industrial base. The Koksan was a unique piece of its time, and North Korea’s armed forces have since moved to commission a number of far more sophisticated weapons systems to enhance their strike capabilities - from the Kumsong 3 (KN-19) anti ship cruise missile and Pukkuksong solid fuelled tactical ballistic missiles to the Gorae Class nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines and Hwasong-15 intercontinental range nuclear delivery vehicle. While it formerly represented the military’s foremost strike platform, the Koksan today is increasingly relegated to a supporting battlefield role. With North Korea today scaling down investment in its conventional forces as a result of the protection provided by a nuclear deterrent force, whether the country will continue to invest heavily in modernising its artillery forces and building successors to the Koksan to contend with more modern South Korean and Russian rivals remains to be seen.

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